• February 23, 2024

Playing defence

Forgive me if I do not mince my words today. We all like to believe that the forces of chaos and degeneracy have finally been vanquished. A Waterloo of sorts. But can we be sure? The decline is decline, after all, and to understand where we are right now, we have to comprehend what was at stake in the past few months. Then we can try to conclude if the elements have stopped rising and no existential threat remains.

Now that the wands have chosen the wizards and there are two newly minted four-star generals. Now that the primal screams and the horse and cattle show of Pakistani punditry have petered out, did you pause to ask yourself what was it all about? Of course, not. That happens when we are running on autopilot, and that too on fumes. When every moment of life is a struggle, how can you be asked to spare some time to study your surroundings and ask more profound questions?

Since it was the Pakistan Army’s leadership that was the subject of so much speculation, it would be prudent to remember two salient features that kept it professional, resilient and relevant among all the tumults. Discipline and turnover. Discipline ensures that the service functions optimally as an organism, and no attempt to overthrow its leadership ever succeeded. Turnover ensures that the leadership gets an infusion of fresh blood and a fresh pair of eyes at regular intervals. Add to it the fact that a majority of the officer’s corp is raised from the working class makes it a force to reckon with. Hence even when the rest of the tent collapsed, this one pole was left standing.

Now let’s look at the other side of the equation. Of politicians. Most come from a privileged background where too few dare to accost them. They instinctively surround themselves with yes men. And they never retire. What can go wrong? When they reach the top, the yes men tell them it is their destiny. Now destiny in politics is a dangerous double-edged sword. When you think you have arrived and everything is putty in your hand, you make terrible mistakes. The use of religion to perpetuate power is one example. Dividing state institutions to rule is another.

Now democracy and meritocracy should function as the great equaliser. This means all walks of life should eventually adhere to some merit-based turnover system. But in semi-reformed societies like ours, entropy and not propriety is the dominant force. A fallen tent wants to drag down the last standing pole with it.

And that is precisely what has been happening on repeat. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to best the army by using a crisis to evict the existing leadership and replacing it with a pliant man in Tikka Khan and then Zia. Nawaz Sharif committed the same mistake in the late nineties. These attempts rebounded spectacularly. But no one learns from history. This time it was Imran Khan, an age-fellow of Nawaz, who tried the identical loaded dice. It isn’t going well either. But Imran comes with a difference. His party has a sizable representation of the working/middle class, and he himself is a charismatic man, which meant a better organised and calibrated pushback against attempted course correction — more noise, garnering global attention.

Even as the system bent over backwards to accommodate his peculiarities, there were telltale signs of turbulence. Rank inflexibility, putting ideology above policy, vendetta above harmony, and characteristic tone-deafness when it came to incidents like the Hazara protests. You had seen rulers who wanted to install their loyalists everywhere, now meet someone accused of appointing and removing people based on the first alphabet of their names. Charming. What began in October 2021, however, would surprise everyone the most. This country has seen both strong and weak governments — the ones with an absolute majority and weak, shaky coalitions. But no head of a shaky alliance which, by its own admission, owed its existence to the permanent institutions, had demanded absolute power through systematic demolition of the opposition, culling of dissent, and restructuring of the forces that had brought it into power. Then there was the cavalier attitude towards foreign policy.

But the fight waged on the army leadership was simply breathtaking. And for what? Blocking the transfer of an intelligence chief that you had already greenlit and was being carried out to salvage the prospects of the officer in question? This fight took an uglier shape when on 9th April, Imran was finally removed from power. To many, it was the most dangerous day in recent history because an apparent attempt was afoot to foment violent dissent within the military ranks. That, too, passed. But if you think it should have been taken lightly, just spare some time to listen to the violent rhetoric emanating from some retired military quarters. If the situation had reached the tipping point, who knew where it would have led? The fight dragged on even as a serious crisis was averted and kept getting uglier. All this brinkmanship to get an unreliable victory. With any luck, the new appointments bring an end to this madness.

But what happens in the coming months will be equally important. With the appointment of the new army chief, such elements might have been momentarily silenced, but it doesn’t mean they have gone away. Just like his demand for an election before November, there are reasons behind Mr Khan’s demand for an early election before April. We can wargame what path this unlikely scenario might take, but you know very well what this can mean for the integrity of the institutions.

Through the recent crisis, the Pakistan Army has proven that it is made of stronger stuff than many expected, but these constant attempts to destabilise the system should stop. The country cannot afford further polarisation and instability. Any attempts to foment further discord must be tackled swiftly and with resolve.

We all want more or less the same thing — more democratic stability and progress. But beware of the elements who might want to install themselves as the Amir-ul-Momineen. Pakistan was envisioned as a republic by the founding fathers. We have no right to allow it to become a monarchy or a theocracy. As civilian institutions try to fix what is broken, the new military leadership will have to take stock of the elements that might threaten their institution’s discipline and integrity. Apart from this, let us hope that pledge to stay away from politics is upheld because it is only by becoming a stable democracy that we can realise our collective dreams.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2022.

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